Why it matters that you can't own an electronic copy of the Oxford English Dictionary


Which is why it’s pirated with unimaginable fervor. I don’t know a single person who would agree to such ridiculous terms.

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I have a copy of the compact edition bought in the early eighties from the W. H. Smith bookclub for the princely sum of GBP 40 (not a tremendous amount even then).

For me an electronic version would be a nice thing to have but it would have to replicate one of the most important features of the paper version and that is that one can easily dip in and read at random and just keep reading. An ebook might qualify but an app never could, the app machinery will get in the way of the words. Of course it should be searchable but one does not need an app for that. Apps are just another way of putting a gatekeeper between you and your property.


Only $25 for a DIY e-book. Cheap!

Oh it can be owned, it just can’t be paid for.


Could we just make a better one?

And . . . you know. . . have the language make more sense too?

I see opportunity here!


“My discussions with OUP’s execs convinced me that this wasn’t the result of venality or greed, but rather the unfortunate consequence of a bunch of individually reasonable decisions that added up to something rather worrying.”

Pray tell.

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Small headline quibble: you CAN own an electronic copy - the CD-ROM - it just doesn’t get continuously updated the way the site does.


Aye, exactly. I was hoping for that after the jump.



“My discussions with OUP’s execs convinced me that this wasn’t the result of venality or greed, but rather the unfortunate consequence of a bunch of individually reasonable decisions that added up to something rather worrying.”

Don’t be naive. Call rewrite
“In my discussions with OUP’s execs they convinced me that they weren’t venal or greedy and that the greed and venality of the final decision was simply the unfortunate consequence of a bunch of individually reasonable decisions that added up to something rather worrying.” Rather worrying? If you break monstrous decisions in to tiny bits, many may not seem all that terrible. They are all responsible for the final decision. Responsibility carries culpability.

That’s the second edition. The OED is currently on its third edition.

The first electronic version of the dictionary was made available in 1988. The online version has been available since 2000, and as of August 2010 was receiving two million hits per month from paying subscribers. The chief executive of Oxford University Press, Nigel Portwood, feels it unlikely that the third edition will ever be printed.


Presumably, it’s because if you put a digital copy available without DRM out there in the wild, it would be uploaded onto a server with no take-down jurisdiction faster than you could say “torrent”, and Oxford University Press would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, because why pay for something that is available for free. It’s wholly pragmatic. DRM does not work, so they won’t sell the book in digital form, rather they expect you to rent access. The only thing protecting the paper edition is the inconvenience of scanning it


My thoughts exactly. Whenever a business - including a nonprofit - works this hard to alienate its customers, my inner wheeler-dealer lights up and says it’s time to snatch their market share. Somebody is going to do it better, with terms people like, and Oxford will quickly become a relic.

Well, maybe not quickly. I guess dictionaries are conservative beasts. It will probably take time for Wiktionary to equal the OED level of scholarship and respect; but it’s the direction we’re heading.

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But we could do BETTER! In our dictionary literally would only mean literally and not figuratively, we can get rid of words like lunting and groat (except in our ‘for reading the seven books that have them’ dictionary), and slowly but surely start setting up more consistent rules.

Because when people are trying to learn our language, they don’t need all these exceptions ‘because this is from Latin and that is from Greek’ . . . I mean, I like being smart as much as the next guy, but maybe we’d do better if we were wasting less neurons keeping track of all this stuff.

I mean, I’m through with the exceptions, I’ts a trough of rubbish that people accept without a second thought, and I say enough! Some of the words are so rough it makes me cough to say them, and we really ought to do a thorough look at what we’ve wrought!

(that was fun to put together!) :wink:


The OUP execs aren’t behind, they’re doing what everyone is moving towards. Adobe Creative Cloud and Office 365 are putting their industry leading software into pay per month (or year) model as well. In the cloud, we’re all renters.

Makes more money, can claim its better for the user, because they get constant updates, and it’s a better response (from the company side) to software piracy.

It’s really like a gym membership. You pay the money for access to their equipment and service.

Or cable television. Or cellular plans.

I don’t like it, but it seems no one really care what users like, because they want the benefits. And if they need people need them, they know people with pay for them.

I disagreiya, I think we niede lots more irregular verbs!

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Question: How many actually own a current OED? Many (most?) of us, for most purposes, are still using the “collegiate” dictionary which was the first dictionary we ever acquired, or a webified equivalent of one of the out-of-copyright versions, or for newer words are doing a search. And for spelling many are just using our editor’s word list plus whatever exceptions we’ve added to it, backed up by the above. So I’m not sure ownership is the right question to be asking.

Given the above, they’re in a difficult spot w/r/t funding. They can either try to preserve their dwindling current market and price it to cover their costs, or they can offer a cheap subscription service and hope that enough people are willing to pay for that to keep them in business. Or they can try both in parallel. Which seems to be what they’re groping their way toward.

Yeah, we’ll make our own dictionary! With hookers!1 And blackjack!2

  1. Hookers plural, n. Prostitute or street walker
  2. Blackjack n. Card game, also known as Twenty-one3
  3. In fact, forget about the dictionary

Background: I have the CD of the second edition (running, should anyone be interested, with version 1.11 of the software), in addition to owning–but never using-- the microfiche edition. The CD edition is a very powerful tool indeed for someone like myself who is professionally involved with books (and therefore words). I purchased the CD in approximately 1994 or '95 for (as I recall) about a hundred dollars (or perhaps quid) from a bookseller in the UK. It still works, with careful installation, up to Windows 7 (I have not tested it on Windows 8).

What’s especially interesting to me in light of the Boing Boing discussion is that my license covers up to fifty users (although I have only two installations, and have never made use of this munificence). What is amazing to me is the extraordinary sea-change in the thinking of publishers that is reflected in this fact. Clearly, supplying the same potential fifty users with third edition access would be a costly (and, for the OUP, profitable) exercise.

Now, I am not going to strongly criticize the OUP regarding cost of access to the online-only nature of the third edition, as I do not know their full rationale. (I must deplore the absence of a printed edition.) I do acknowledge that there are searches possible in the digital version that would be utterly impractical in a printed book. But the fact remains; in the 'nineties this publisher offered digital access on an ownership basis quite generously, and I would presume the venture was profitable, as sale of the CD continued for many years. I think there are many OED users who would happily pay a reasonable amount for a CD or DVD edition of the current edition, and would also like web access for smartphone or tablet use. It’s a little sad to see the latest form of Murray’s extraordinary creation, the original edition of which was created in part by a large number of volunteer readers, turned into a profit center by one of the oldest University Presses in the world.